Big challenges usually present equally big opportunities. So when it comes to water infrastructure, we’ve got quite an opportunity on our hands. Water systems are complex organisms of sorts, where drinking-water, wastewater, stormwater, and sewer systems are all interconnected. And with rapid urbanization, average rainfall increases, and nearly 1,000,000 miles of water pipes and networks aging well past their operational life, water infrastructure in the U.S. is being stressed to unprecedented levels.
In the developed world we view water like any other common commodity. Accessing clean and reliable water is generally a localized way of life for most people in the U.S. The rare stories of shutoffs and day zero scenarios rarely get anyone’s attention because water doesn’t have much political sex-appeal. At least not like say pandemics, taxes, and Trump tweets. Ironically, if the majority of folks are unaware or even apathetic toward clean water issues, it makes them all the more important to deal with.
In most of the developed world, rate-paying citizens enjoy access to clean water every time they turn the tap on. This is the marvel of modern engineering. But climate change, unsustainable aquifer depletion, and urbanization are rapidly changing that dynamic.
You see, the majority of U.S. water assets have approached the end of their useful lives. The underground tanks, pumps, and conveyance systems we rely on for clean water are decrepit and failing. A 2017 report from Bluefield Research stated a $683 Billion forecast over the next decade for water related capital improvements to meet current and future demands. Some believe this number is conservative. And with nearly 95% of all water infrastructure spending made at the local level, it’s the rate-payer who will be on the hook for financing these projects.
From the deferred maintenance of conveyance pipes to the construction of bigger stormwater facilities, the massive price tags of these projects are getting passed on to paying customers who have no say in the solution. This usually works fine until there are disruptions to service or the price of the product gets too high. If dramatic rate increases in parts of California and in large Midwest cities are any indication, it’s time for cities to think differently about how they approach water management.
On these pages we focus on stormwater because we believe that the health and sustainability of urban water systems starts and stops with efficient stormwater management. Stormwater runoff pollution has become the most pervasive environmental issue that cities face today, simply because cities manage it like waste. But stormwater itself is an asset. After all, it’s rain water! It only becomes waste when it hits the impermeable surfaces in cities — streets, sidewalks, parking lots, alleyways, and rooftops — and turns into runoff. It’s my belief that the inability of U.S. cities to manage stormwater naturally and effectively is THE key factor in the deterioration of our urban water systems.
Defaulting to the age-old approach of building larger gray infrastructure systems with bigger pipes, pumps, and longer tunnels, is short sighted. The future of stormwater management includes the natural capture and infiltration of rainfall, returning it to the ground while eliminating the overburden that runoff puts on existing municipal water infrastructure.
This isn’t a novel concept. In fact, this idea of getting stormwater back into the ground naturally, right where it falls, is a form of development called green infrastructure. As more cities throughout the U.S. adopt these techniques, more private capital flows toward innovative green infrastructure projects, creating a virtuous cycle.
To this point, green infrastructure has remained nascent because it hasn’t really been scalable. Rain gardens and stormwater ponds are known to gobble up otherwise usable (developable) space, replete with expensive maintenance regimens and breeding ground for invasive plants. Permeable pavements were great in theory, but poor in practice. Weak in strength and easy to clog, these materials have only improved marginally over the last decade. But all of that is changing now.
Breakthroughs in material technology are bringing about new types of pervious hardscapes that don’t clog from dirt and debris, for the first time enabling scalable applications of permeable pavement. With nearly 1 million miles of urban arterials and side streets in the U.S., the ability to manage stormwater from the street, directly in the public right-of-way is a game changer. Couple this with the water industry’s embrace of new approaches in sidestream treatment, distributed water infrastructure, and AI, and it’s starting to look like innovation is the key to solving the water issue addressing a huge opportunity around urban water.